Instructional Design Principles

17 Modality Principle


Watch overview videoModality Principle (3:19)


The Modality Principle as outlined by Clark and Mayer (2011) is a fundamental e-learning principle that focuses on the need for narration when presenting important information related to a displayed graphic.  The goal of this principle is to not overload the learner by using only one cognitive pathway such as visual presentation instead, words should be presented as speech rather than onscreen text (Clark & Mayer, 2011; Oberfoell & Correia, 2016).  This allows the learner to focus on the visual graphics and listen to the explanation to increase understanding and knowledge transfer (Clark & Mayer, 2011; Oberfoell & Correia, 2016).

Guidelines for Use

Guideline 1 – When to Apply the Principle

The Modality Principle should be applied in e-learning environments where graphics are complex, terminology is familiar to the learner and the overall lesson is fast paced (Clark & Mayer, 2011).  For example, a diagram is displayed illustrating blood flow through the heart after key terms have been presented to the learner. The diagram will include text outlining the anatomical structures while speech narration describes the concept.

Guideline 2 – How to Apply the Principle

Choose your graphic, then write out a narrative that can be used to describe the applicable concept.  When the narrative is complete utilize appropriate speech media such as Voice Thread or PowerPoint voice-over to provide a detailed description of the displayed graphic (Clark and Mayer, 2011).

Guideline 3 – When to Avoid Applying the Principle

Clark and Mayer (2011) recommend that under the following circumstances both narration and onscreen text descriptions should be present with a graphic:

  1. When English is not the learners first language
  2. When the words presented are technical
  3. When the words are unfamiliar
  4. When information is required for future reference

Adding closed captioning to presentations is a simple way to include onscreen text descriptions with speech narration when presented with the above scenarios.

Good Examples of Use

Example 1 – Khan Academy

When studying Anatomy and Physiology Khan Academy provides video tutorials for specific topics related to the central subject.  Within the tutorials, the professor provides narrative descriptions of the graphics being displayed. Learners can turn on closed captioning if needed.

Example 2 – Mystery Science

Mystery Science is an interactive website for students of varying ages to learn about several different science-related topics.  Information for older students is presented using slideshow videos where the graphics displayed are narratively described by Science Doug.  Learners can turn on closed captioning if needed.

Helpful Resources

Resource 1 – Modality Principle Website

This website created by the European Heart Association provides additional information surrounding the Modality Principle and outlines its rationale for use and limitations.

Resource 2 – Video Example By  Josh Walter

This video provides a short example and explanation of the utilization of the Modality Principle.

Resource 3 – Current Research Surrounding the Modality Principle

This research paper by Oberfoell and Correia (2016) provides an excellent in-depth explanation of the Modality Principle.  Their research focuses on the application of the principle with todays technology advanced student populations.


Abusaada, A., Lee, L., & Fong, S. (2013). Effects of Modality Principle in Tutorial Video  Streaming.  International Journal of Academic Research in Business and Science, 3(5), 456-466.  Retrieved from

Clark, R. C., & Mayer, R.E. (2011). Applying the Modality Principle. In R. Taff (Ed.), E-Learning and the Science of Instruction. (pp. 115-130). San Francisco,  CA: Wiley.

European Heart Association. (2017). Modality Principle: Rationale and Limitations.  Retrieved from

Oberfoell, & Correia. (2016). Understanding the role of the Modality Principle in Multimedia Learning Environments. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 32(6), 607-617. Retrieved from


Submitted by: Kristen Marks-Riberdy
Bio: Post-secondary nursing professor, Academic and Clinical Coordinator for Internationally Educated Nursing Program.




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E-Learning Essentials 2020 by Power Learning Solutions is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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